Reflections on Founding the Southeast Institute and Healing Divisions Today

by Emily Keller (Originially published in The Script. Copied here with permission.)

A Sikh Temple in the United States, a church in Pakistan, a synagogue in the United States, a Roman Catholic cathedral in the Philippines, and, just recently, a mosque in New Zealand: All are tragically linked as the sites of horrific, deadly attacks launched by extremists wishing to sow division and terror.

Extremism is everywhere. It is one of the many examples of the current divisions in our world. As we prepare for the upcoming conference in Raleigh on “Promoting Equality and OKness: Healing the Divisions in Our World,” I have been reflecting on and wondering what individuals can do to effect change at the level of the group, the society, and the global community. It brought to mind Graham Barnes, the founder of the Southeast Institute for Group and Family Therapy (SEI), which will be celebrating 50 years of work toward social justice when we gather together this August for the conference sponsored by SEI, USATAA, and the ITAA. What motivated this white man, in 1969, to found the Fellowship for Racial and Economic Equality (FREE), which would later become SEI? To find out, I visited with Graham over a couple of online video sessions.

In 1968, Graham was studying at Boston University and Harvard University toward a doctorate in social ethics. On the evening of 4 April, after returning home from class, he turned on the news and watched broadcaster Walter Cronkite announce the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “I was just wiped out,” he said about that moment. “I was in disbelief. That could not happen.”

Until then, Graham had been studying systemic racism and poverty and knew that they go hand in hand. He revered King’s work in the civil rights movement, and on hearing of his assassination Graham knew that he “had to do something.” By the time he went to sleep, he had put together ideas that would lay the groundwork for a new organization. “I knew from my studies that the roots of injustice don’t just take hold of individuals; they are embedded themselves within our social systems. We

can’t just focus on changing individuals, we have to look at changing systems.” That became his mission. 

The next day, he started calling white leaders of segregated organizations, many of them religious figures. 

“I asked if they would commit themselves to working within their institutions to overcome the problems of systemic racism,” Graham recalls. Not one person said no. Within 48 hours he had agreements from more than 50 people, all of whom had committed to signing his “call to action.” Shortly after, he found a financial backer. He was on his way to forming an action-oriented organization to combat systemic racism. He took a leave of absence from his studies to pursue that goal.

Despite the initial enthusiasm and support, Barnes had many challenges to overcome. The assets that were promised were suddenly frozen, and other people started to express political concerns. As time went on, the initial motivation spurred by King’s assassination waned. But not for Graham. He overcame a series of obstacles until the day he established FREE in 1969.

In the first 4 years of operation, FREE conducted work and led workshops with leaders from 40 states across the United States. “We were working to overcome racism at the systemic level. To do that, we also had to address economic inequality. Where there is racism, there is economic inequality and injustice,” says Graham. Toward that end, they worked with local religious leaders and leaders of various other organizations. They came together to work in groups committed to systemic change.

FREE was eventually renamed the Southeast Institute for Group and Family Therapy (SEI) to reflect its broader focus on alleviating trauma and conflict. Vann Joines joined SEI as director of training in 1973 and became director and president in 1979. Vann says he was attracted to SEI because “I had been active in civil rights work since 1967, and joining SEI was a way of combining that work with my interest in psychotherapy.”

People in those days really wanted change, Graham explains. And they were changing. “That is what systemic thinking is about. The individual is already embedded within many systems.” Not only does change need to happen at the group level, but for it to last, each generation needs to recommit. If they do not, when the group changes again, the individuals follow. “You can help individuals change all you want,” Graham says, “but the next time a systemic change takes place, their minds go with it.” Graham remembers one of his Harvard professors saying, “Every personal problem is a social problem,

and every social problem is a personal problem.” It is an inseparable loop.

Despite the interlinking of individuals and society, we— or at least people in power—often separate them. I am reminded of the writings of Ignacio Martín-Baró (1994), who wrote that people in power place the burden of change on disempowered individuals. Rather than look at what we can do at the social level to create healthy people, we take labels that belong to an unhealthy society, place them on individual people, and call them unhealthy. We have it all wrong.

“If we can get it wrong, we will,” Graham said. “If we don’t make mistakes and get it wrong, then we don’t have the basis for learning.” Now is the time for us to come together and take a good look at what we are doing.

At this point in our conversations, I asked Graham about some of the recent terrorist attacks and hateful rhetoric in the world, including the United States. “Do you have the sense that things are better off today than they were when you started FREE?” I asked. Graham offered, “I think the extremism is so much worse today than it was in 1968. We’ve had all these years of it, and it’s continuing to spread. It’s pervasive.”

That extremism is designed to divide us, but these divisions are not natural. The fact is that connection is natural. Graham explained that “the environment goes deep within us into every cell of our bodies and outward into the air we breathe. It goes all the way out and all the way in. We aren’t living in the environment, we are the environment.”

Today, our urgent challenge is to connect to our truth. In TA terms, that truth is that “I’m OK and you’re OK.” Although SEI and many other individuals and organizations have worked toward “promoting equality and OKness” around the world, divisions persist and deepen. A new wave of hateful rhetoric and terror is rising.

We need your voice as we come together to explore what can be done—now—to heal the divisions in our world. Please join us at the SEI/USATAA/ITAA conference on 31 July-2 August in Raleigh, North Carolina. For details, visit .


Martín-Baró, I. (1994). Writings for a liberation psychology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Brief History of Southeast Institute for Group and Family Therapy

The Institute was founded in 1969 in Madison Heights, VA, as a non-profit educational institution called the Fellowship for Racial and Economic Equality. Its goal was to help eradicate racism from American society. Believing that every personal problem is a social problem, and every social problem is a personal problem, the Fellowship staff, led by Graham Barnes, sought to integrate effective tools from psychotherapy and social change. An initial grant was obtained from the Irwin-Sweeney-Miller Foundation to work with a target group of American fundamentalist church structures. By 1971, they offered training in transactional analysis and creative group problem solving to help professionals confront social problems such as racism and improve their own effectiveness as psychotherapists.

In 1974, the Fellowship made Chapel Hill, NC, its home and the name Southeast Institute was chosen to reflect an expanded focus. Shortly after this move, an experimental Master of Arts program in psychotherapy and social change was launched. By mid-1974 the program was fully operational as a joint venture with Lone Mountain College. In May 1975, 22 students were graduated. About a third of the alumni have pursued doctorate degrees in clinical psychology, and most of the others are engaged in challenging work in the mental health field. A committee from the Western and Southern Associations of Schools and Colleges made the following comments about the program following a visit to the Institute in late 1974: “The committee feels that this program should be encouraged to continue. The Ideas behind it and the need it serves might well be considered by the other institutions. It is not only academically responsible, but it is the type of program that is sorely needed by society.”

The Lilly Endowment Counselors Education Program was also begun in 1973 to train faculty and counselors from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) in the South. When the program ended in June 1976, more than 90 people from 17 colleges and universities had participated in some part of all of the program. Several of these professionals are now members or are actively pursuing advanced membership in ITAA.

In 1974, Southeast Institute held its first Spring Conference in Chapel Hill. Three hundred people participated. The conference now attracts about 1000 people annually. The annual Eric Berne Lectures on Social Psychotherapy were inaugurated at the 1977 Conference with a lecture by Gregory Bateson.

Southeast Institute has earned respect and recognition for its excellence of training and for its continued commitment to developing effective models for individual and social change.


Southeast Institute for Group and Family Therapy is committed to making the world a better place for all by connecting people to their worth, value, and dignity and the worth, value, and dignity in others. We offer to our clients excellence in clinical therapy and psychotherapy training.

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